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The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali
  • Original Title: La persistencia de la memoria
  • Date: 1931
  • Style: Surrealism
  • Period: Surrealism Period (1929-1940)
  • Genre: symbolic painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 24.1 x 33 cm

The Persistence of Memory (1931) is one of the most iconic and recognizable paintings of Surrealism. Frequently referenced in popular culture, the small canvas (24x33 cm) is sometimes known as “Melting Clocks”, “The Soft Watches” and “The Melting Watches”. The painting depicts a dreamworld in which common objects are deformed and displayed in a bizarre and irrational way: watches, solid and hard objects appear to be inexplicably limp and melting in the desolate landscape. Dalí paints his fantastical vision in a meticulous and realistic manner: he effortlessly integrates the real and the imaginary in order “to systemize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality”.

When asked about the limp watches, the artist compared their softness to overripe cheese saying that they show “the camembert of time”. The idea of rot and decay is most evident in the gold watch on the left, which is swarmed by ants. Ants, a common motif in Dalí’s art are usually linked to decay and death. He set the scene in a desolate landscape that was likely inspired by the landscape of his homeland, the Catalan coast. The influence of the Catalan landscape also appears in another element of the painting: the artist inserts himself into the scene in the form of a strange fleshy creature in the center of the painting. According to Dalí, the self-portrait was based on a rock formation at Cap de Creus in northeast Catalonia. Some scholars have also drawn a parallel between the self-portrait and a section of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights (1510-1515) – on the right side of the left panel Bosch depicts rocks, bushes, and small animals that resemble Dalí’s profile with the prominent nose and long eyelashes. Similar versions of this self-portrait appear in other paintings by Dalí like The Great Masturbator (1929).

The melting watch, one of Dalí’s most powerful and potent motifs, continued to play an important role in his art. Two decades after The Persistence of Memory, Dalí recreated his famous work in the painting The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-1954). As the title suggests, the painting shows the disintegration of the world depicted in the original painting, reflecting a world changed by the nuclear age. The painting showed Dalí’s growing interest in quantum physics: he added rectangular blocks that represent “the atomic power source” and missile-like objects that reference the atomic bomb. In the late stages of his career, Dalí also produced numerous sculptures of melting watches including The Persistence of Memory (ca. 1980), Profile of Time (1977-1984), Nobility of Time (1977-1984) and Dance of Time I (1979-1984).

The Persistence of Memory was first shown in 1932 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. In 1934, the painting was anonymously donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it remains until this day.

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The Persistence of Memory (Spanish: La persistencia de la memoria) is a 1931 painting by artist Salvador Dalí, and one of his most recognizable works. First shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, since 1934 the painting has been in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, which received it from an anonymous donor. It is widely recognized and frequently referenced in popular culture, and sometimes referred to by more descriptive (though incorrect) titles, such as "Melting Clocks", "The Soft Watches" or "The Melting Watches".

The well-known surrealist piece introduced the image of the soft melting pocket watch. It epitomizes Dalí's theory of "softness" and "hardness", which was central to his thinking at the time. As Dawn Adès wrote, "The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order". This interpretation suggests that Dalí was incorporating an understanding of the world introduced by Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity. Asked by Ilya Prigogine whether this was in fact the case, Dalí replied that the soft watches were not inspired by the theory of relativity, but by the surrealist perception of a Camembert melting in the sun.

It is possible to recognize a human figure in the middle of the composition, in the strange "monster" (with a lot of texture near its face, and lots of contrast and tone in the picture) that Dalí used in several contemporary pieces to represent himself – the abstract form becoming something of a self-portrait, reappearing frequently in his work. The figure can be read as a "fading" creature, one that often appears in dreams where the dreamer cannot pinpoint the creature's exact form and composition. One can observe that the creature has one closed eye with several eyelashes, suggesting that the creature is also in a dream state. The iconography may refer to a dream that Dalí himself had experienced, and the clocks may symbolize the passing of time as one experiences it in sleep or the persistence of time in the eyes of the dreamer.

The orange clock at the bottom left of the painting is covered in ants. Dalí often used ants in his paintings as a symbol of decay. Another insect that is present in the painting is a fly, which sits on the watch that is next to the orange watch. The fly appears to be casting a human shadow as the sun hits it. The Persistence of Memory employs "the exactitude of realist painting techniques" to depict imagery more likely to be found in dreams than in waking consciousness.

The craggy rocks to the right represent a tip of Cap de Creus peninsula in north-eastern Catalonia. Many of Dalí's paintings were inspired by the landscapes of his life in Catalonia. The strange and foreboding shadow in the foreground of this painting is a reference to Mount Pani.

Dalí returned to the theme of this painting with the variation The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954), showing his earlier famous work systematically fragmenting into smaller component elements, and a series of rectangular blocks which reveal further imagery through the gaps between them, implying something beneath the surface of the original work; this work is now in the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, while the original Persistence of Memory remains at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Dalí also produced various lithographs and sculptures on the theme of soft watches late in his career. Some of these sculptures are the Persistence of Memory, the Nobility of Time, the Profile of Time, and the Three Dancing Watches.

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